‘So look,’ Jason said. ‘I need to talk to you about tonight.’
‘I’m not…’ He stopped, then took a breath. ‘I’m not going to be able to make it.’
I was surprised by the way I reacted, hearing this. My face flushed, my heartbeat jumped. It was like every time I got on the bike, a mix of fear and inevitability, all at once. ‘You’re canceling on me?’ I said. ‘Seriously? Again?’
‘I know.’ He winced. ‘It’s totally rude of me. I wouldn’t blame you if you never spoke to me again.’
This was when I was supposed to proclaim otherwise. I didn’t. I just waited for the excuse, because there always was one.
‘It’s just, there’s this speaker coming today to the conference,’ he said quickly. ‘She’s a leader in student activism, has really made some big changes at Harvard, where she went undergrad, and now Yale, where she’s in law school. I mean, incredible policy-changing stuff. So she’s a great contact for me.’
I said nothing as Adam came out once again, this time pushing a smaller green bike. It had fatter tires, a glossy black seat, and was polished so clean it was glinting in the sun. ENJOY YOUR RIDE! said its sign, which was swinging in the breeze.
‘Anyway,’ Jason continued, ‘her talk is this afternoon, but then she’s going to dinner with a select few attendees to talk about some of her experiences one on one. No first years were supposed to be invited, but apparently she’d heard about that recycling initiative I did junior year, so…’
I was listening, even as I watched Adam push out another bike, this one a two-seater. YOU’LL LOOK SWEET! said its sign, with a heart around it.
‘It’s just,’ Jason finished finally. ‘It’s something I have to do. I’m sorry.’
Right then, I realized something. I wasn’t upset that Jason was ditching me. That racing of my heart, the flushing of my face I was feeling: it was what happened when you got hurt, true, but also when you got back up and went on. Maybe Jason had never been meant to be part of my second chance anyway, and this was just the push that I, and fate, needed.
‘You know what?’ I said to him. ‘It’s fine.’
He blinked at me. ‘Really?’
‘Really.’ I took a breath, making sure this true. Weirdly, it was. ‘I’m okay with this.’
‘You are?’ I nodded. ‘Oh, God, Auden, thanks for understanding. I figured you’d be so angry with me! But you of all people understand the academic thing, right? I mean, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and…’
He was still talking as I stepped around him and started toward the bike shop. Vaguely, I heard him saying something about understanding and obligation, commitment and future endeavors, all the buzzwords and concepts I did understand, and knew so well. Unlike what I was now approaching. Still, more than ever this summer, I’d learned that it’s not just where you go, but how you choose to get there. So I pulled that sign off the green bike – ENJOY YOUR RIDE! – and went inside to take the first step toward doing just that.
‘Guess what?’ Maggie said as soon as I walked into Clementine’s.
She clapped her hands. ‘I have a date for the prom!’
‘Guess what?’ I replied.
‘I don’t.’ Her mouth dropped open. ‘Oh, and,’ I added, ‘I bought a bike.’
‘What?’ she said, but I was already walking past her. I heard her fall in behind me, yelling to some customers by the jeans that she’d be with them in a second, and when I pushed open the door to the office, she was right on my heels.
‘Okay, let’s just slow down.’ She held up her hands, palms facing me. ‘First things first. What do you mean, you don’t have a date?’
‘Just that,’ I said, sitting down at the desk. ‘Jason bailed on me.’
‘About twenty minutes ago.’
‘Oh, my God.’ She put a hand over her mouth: her expression was so horrified, like someone had died. ‘That’s the worst thing ever.’
‘No,’ I said, swallowing. ‘It’s actually not.’
I shook my head. ‘The worst thing is that right afterward, I marched right into the bike shop to ask Eli to go with me, and he said no.’
She threw up her other hand, clapping it over the one already covering her mouth. ‘Holy crap,’ she said, her voice muffled. ‘Where does the bike come in?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said, waving my hand. ‘That part’s kind of a blur.’
Her eyes widened, and she dropped her hands, sticking her head back out in the hallway. After checking on the customers, she whipped out her phone. ‘Don’t move,’ she said, fingers flying over the keyboard. ‘I’m calling for backup.’
‘Maggie.’ I groaned. ‘Please don’t.’
‘Too late.’ She pushed one last button. ‘It’s done.’
Which was how, twenty minutes later, I found myself sitting in the same spot, now surrounded by not only Maggie but also Leah and Esther, with a large cup of coffee and two packs of chocolate cupcakes on the desk in front of me.
‘Cupcakes?’ Maggie said to Esther. ‘Really?’
‘I panicked,’ Esther replied. ‘What kind of snack does a situation like this call for?’
Leah thought for a moment. ‘The pharmaceutical kind.’
‘Well, they don’t have that at the Gas/Gro. So cupcakes it is.’ Esther looked at me. ‘Okay. We’re all here now. What happened?’
I picked up the coffee, taking a sip, and immediately wanted to drain the whole thing. Instead, I told them.
It wasn’t like I had a solid plan when I pulled open the bike shop door. All I could think was that here I had another chance, and this time, I was going to do it right.
It seemed like the best sign possible, maybe even ideal, that I spotted Eli the minute I stepped inside the door. He was behind the counter, his back to me, stuffing something into a duffel bag, and seeing him, I had the same reaction I’d had for weeks now, a sudden embarrassment about how I’d acted, followed by an urge to run in the other direction as fast as I could. Instead, I gripped the sign in my hand even tighter, and pressed on.